Thursday, 1 December 2011

Legal aid cuts delayed

Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke today put back the implementation of the legal aid cuts from October 2012 to April 2013. LAG welcomes this news. It at least delays the end of legal advice for thousands of people with common civil law problems by six months. However, we believe the pressure needs to be kept on the government to amend the Legal Aid Bill, which is currently before the House of Lords, so that the planned cuts to employment, benefits, debt, housing, immigration and other civil legal aid cases do not go ahead.

The six month delay will also apply to the abolition of the Legal Services Commission (LSC), the introduction of the mandatory telephone gateway and the revised eligibility criteria for civil legal aid. LAG believes that the deadline to implement the government’s planned changes to legal aid was always going to be hard to meet on a practical level- notice to providers of legal aid services would have had to been given immediately after the Bill had received Royal assent. Most experts including LAG had said that the time-table was too tight to implement the changes by October next year. Rumours had been circulating in recent months that the LSC was telling the Ministry of Justice this. It would seem that the government eventually decided to listen to this advice.

In another humiliating move for the government, they have also announced that they are putting plans on ice to implement competitive tendering for criminal legal aid. In November last year ministers had announced their intention to produce a consultation paper on competitive tendering for criminal work. This has now been put back to the autumn of next year. The first contracts are scheduled to begin in the summer 2015. We have a feeling of deja vu about this decision. The previous government announced plans to introduce competitive tendering for criminal legal aid only to abandon them as the last general election approached.

In LAG’s opinion this is very much a case of pain delayed for civil legal aid clients, as well as for the firms and not for profit agencies which serve them. While it is to be welcomed that the government has paused on the brink of destroying access to justice for 650,000 people; the challenge remains to make them turn back.

Pic: Ministry of Justice

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